After 215 long days, the NFL is back. Not the draft, not training camp, not preseason games—real, honest-to-god, this-actually-counts football games. Thursday night’s matchup between the defending Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens and the Peyton Manning-helmed Denver Broncos has been circled on fans’ calendars since it was announced on April 18 and now it has finally arrived. Today is a happy day for football fans.
But the start of the 2013 campaign is unlikely to fully cast aside the angst-filled narrative that drove discussion of professional football throughout the offseason. There have been arrests and scandals and debates and lawsuits—hardly any of which have been resolved. This has become commonplace for the NFL of the 21st century and yet each fall, there arrives ample time and energy to discuss quarterback battles, coaching decisions and division rivalries. Here are six compelling story lines as the 2013 NFL season gets underway tonight:
1. The Concussion Problem. Though the issue of concussions in the NFL has only arrived at the forefront of public consciousness in the last decade, there’s little doubt it has been a problem for far longer than that and will remain one for the foreseeable future. On Aug. 29, the NFL and thousands of retired players reached a tentative $765 million settlement to aid in the treatment of concussion-related brain injuries. Though the payout demonstrates progress, one condition of the settlement was that the agreement “cannot be considered an admission by the NFL of liability, or an admission that plaintiffs’ injuries were caused by football,” which, of course, is about as ridiculous as it sounds. With athletes growing stronger and faster, the NFL has made attempts to update its rules and equipment to better protect players, but it seems likely that that the league will be fighting a very public uphill battle for years to come.
(MORE: NFL Settles Concussion Suit: Is It a Win For Player Health?)
2. A Maddening Mascot. The Washington Redskins are one of the league’s most popular franchises, but their antiquated moniker received heightened criticism during the 2013 offseason. Criticism for the ‘Redskins’ nickname is nothing new—complaints date back to at least 1992—but there has been a groundswell of support for change since February’s Super Bowl. In spite of countless requests from politicians and pundits who call the name unequivocally racist, owner Dan Snyder has dug his heels in: “We’ll never change the name. It’s simple. NEVER.” Regardless of Snyder’s position, some have decided to abandon the name anyway. Reports indicate that Peter King’s new “Monday Morning Quarterback” site (an offshoot of Sports Illustrated which, like TIME, is part of TIME Inc.) will simply refer to the franchise as the “Washington football team.”
3. The Specter of Aaron Hernandez. The New England Patriots released Hernandez just hours after his arrest in July, but his impending murder trial will almost certainly be a distraction for the team well into the regular season. And make no mistake about it, the Hernandez case will continue to be an NFL storyline in large part because he was a Patriot. The oft-repeated myth of the ‘Patriot Way’ has been debunked so frequently and thoroughly in recent years that it seems absurd to expect any sort of higher morality from owner Bob Kraft or head coach Bill Belichick. Still, fans were shocked that a Patriots player could be capable of murder. Belichick and other members of the organization are all but certain to decline comment on any Hernandez questions they receive throughout the season, but that doesn’t mean they won’t be getting them. New England also didn’t shy away from potential distraction when they signed the NFL’s most overexposed player, Tim Tebow, in the spring before cutting him on Aug. 31. Add to that the departure of wideout Wes Welker to the rival Broncos and star tight end Rob Gronkowski’s tenuous injury situation, and there’s a good bet the Patriots are in for season filled with Belichick’s least-favorite thing: tumult.
4. M-E-S-S! MESS! MESS! MESS! If there’s a franchise that knows more about distractions than the Patriots, it’s the New York Jets. For a team that almost no one expects to make the playoffs, the Jets have received an inordinate amount of attention during the offseason. First, the franchise fired general manager Mike Tannenbaum but decided to retain head coach Rex Ryan (an approach that almost always ends in disaster and the dismissal of the head coach the following year). Then in April, the Jets cut Tebow days after drafting the most ‘controversial’ quarterback of the rookie class, Geno Smith. Things haven’t quieted down at all over the summer with Smith battling much-maligned incumbent quarterback Mark Sanchez for the starting job—a battle that ended in the team’s final preseason game when Smith threw three interceptions before Ryan re-inserted Sanchez, who injured his shoulder and may go on the injured reserve list. The first game of the regular season hasn’t even been played, and some columnists are already calling for Ryan’s head. Just another season for the New York Jets.
5. The Rise of Football’s Big Four. The story lines heading into the start of the 2013 season aren’t all negative. The quartet of up-and-coming quarterbacks—Indianapolis’ Andrew Luck, Washington’s Robert Griffin III, San Francisco’s Colin Kaepernick and Seattle’s Russell Wilson—is one of the most gifted in league history. Last season was the first year starting at quarterback for all four players, and all four led their team to the playoffs. Though there’s been considerable debate over which one has the brightest future, this year’s matchups between the four will undoubtedly be appointment viewing for casual fans of football.
6. Who Will Win Super Bowl XLVIII? Your guess is as good as anyone else’s. Few picked last year’s winner, the Baltimore Ravens, to come away with the title, but we know how that ended. Even fewer are picking them to repeat this year, thanks to an aging offensive and a depleted defense. Last year’s NFC champs, the San Francisco 49ers, are a popular pick thanks to Kaepernick, head coach Jim Harbaugh and one of the league’s best defenses. But the Niners are dealing with a number of injuries (including serious ones to Michael Crabtree and Mario Manningham, the team’s top wideouts) and may not have enough weapons on offense to make up for them. Seattle and Atlanta both went deep in last year’s playoffs and are expected to do the same this year. Same for the Broncos and Patriots in the AFC. Yet as is almost always the case, there’s no clear-cut favorite. All any fan can do is wait, wonder and hope—it all begins tonight.